I wanted to see whether the news reports were true; I missed Baja and the laid-back lifestyle it represents. When Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA offered a quick one-day tour, I jumped at the chance to see whether it was time to go back.
I'm happy to report that it is. No soldiers roaming the streets; no anybody roaming the streets. Read on for the conclusion of twelve hours of utter gluttony in the industrial capital of northwestern Mexico, Tijuana. After the festival, our first stop was the Distrito Gastronómico, an offshoot of the high-rent Zona Río where alta cocina restaurants line Escuadrón 201, Sánchez Taboada and Sonora streets. We headed for Erizo Cebichería, a small restaurant that wouldn't feel out of place in Newport Beach. The restaurant's name means "sea urchin", with a column of spent sea urchin shells out front. Inside, I immediately felt underdressed in jeans, untucked button-down seersucker shirt and baseball cap; the woman sitting to our left was a vision of Chanel and Prada, and her husband was dressed in deliberately-casual Ermenegildo Zegna. We'd stumbled into Park Avenue.
It didn't matter; no one batted an eyelash. We were there for fish and seafood, and that was what we were going to have. For those who know ceviche as a tomatoey, gloppy mess served with crackers and bad beer, Erizo is an awakening: ceviche as it was meant to be served. Erizo is owned by Javier Plascencia, the mastermind behind many of Tijuana's finest restaurants and sells screamingly fresh, strictly local seafood. No fish flown in from God-only-knows-where, no flash-frozen seafood bought at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market; everything Plascencia sells is plucked straight from the waters of Baja.
While the entire menu looks enticing, a few items at Erizo deserve special mention. The restaurant's namesake sea urchin is served in a spoon with a dose of a Japanese-inspired, soy-spiked broth. You eat the entire thing at once and revel in the briny, salty, deeply umami urchin going down your throat. The chaser is leche de tigre, the liquid leftover from making ceviche. Leche de tigre is a powerful stimulant and, some say, an aphrodisiac. We didn't feel any carnal stirrings, but we were amazed by the sour, salty liquid, which is served with a quail's egg and a branch of salicornia (sea beans).
Two kinds of scallop, callo de garra de león (lion's paw scallops) and callo de hacha (diver scallops) starred in a dish containing purslane, lamb's quarters and other local greens, as well as cucumbers, onions and a little bit of chile. Callo de garra de león is like a thicker, meatier, more assertive version of the scallops that grace our American tables; it's abundant in Baja but almost never seen in California. Instead of limes for the acidic part of the ceviche, Erizo uses kumquats, which provide a hint of sweetness.
Even better was birria de jurel, yellowtail cooked very gently in a cumin-based sauce made with several kinds of chiles and served in a traditional thin blue cazuelita. The result was a broth designed to emphasize rather than overwhelm the strongly flavored fish. Wrapped up in a fresh, thick corn tortilla with onions, lime and guacamole, I could eat that every day for lunch. A masterfully made pisco de maracuyá was made from fresh passion fruit and the Peruvian national white liquor and was the perfect accompaniment.
The best dish, however, was ceviche verde de tres almejas, made with standard littleneck-type clams, Pismo clams and almeja chocolata, the "chocolate" clams that come from the Sea of Cortez on the eastern side of the Baja California peninsula. These last are identifiable by their orange color and their briny, rich taste. The clams were mixed with cucumbers and an herbal, citric sauce that really elevated a simple dish to the next level.
Sipping on a round of piscos sour after our meal, we looked around and realized the place was just about empty. Time to move on.
We headed to Revolución to see Caesar's restaurant. I headed for Licores Leyva, between 6th and 7th, to buy a bottle of Orendain membrillo (quince-flavored liquor) and a bottle of Volcán de Mi Tierra reposado. A few bottles were out on the counter, and samples were proffered. A sip of añejo tequila made me briefly reconsider my reposado, but I persevered. Tequila lines one whole side of the surprisingly deep store, everything from that yellow piss known as Cuervo Gold to artisanal tequilas worth hundreds of dollars. My tequila ran me just shy of $11, though, and the membrillo was under $6 after a generous wink at the exchange rate.
On the way back toward El Arco, I was in front of our group when I felt someone grab my shoulder. "¡Joven!" shouted a big bear of a man. "Oh God," I thought as I turned around with an angry, aggressive look on my face. The guy stepped back a couple of paces, smiled shyly, and said, "Su bolsa va partir. Se le va caer las botellas." Your bag is going to split open--do something before you lose your tequila. I thanked him, fixed it, and continued on my way.
When I got back to Villa del Tabaco, a cigar shop between 2nd and 3rd, the rum they were pouring had run out, damn my luck; I got a tiny, but heavenly sip of seven-year Cuban rum, a taste unavailable through legal means in the United States. Men puffed huge Cuban cigars; an espresso machine hummed. For the aficionado of slightly guilty pleasures, this is the first stop and the reason to come to Revolución. The hubbub of the outdoors is kept out by a thick glass door; you're welcome to sit and smoke and drink as much as you want.
Having sat and shot the breeze--and most importantly, not eaten--for a while, we headed back to the car and headed southeast, into parts of Tijuana that tourists never bother with. Past the Zona Río and the giant Wal-Mart that hides it from Agua Caliente street, we headed east toward the airport. Bill hung a quick turn and we parked near Tacos Salceados, the very best taquería in all creation, universally called "La Ermita" after the street it's on.
Walk in and look up at the chalkboard menus on either side of the room. Make up your mind and make your way to the bar, club-style; call your order to whomever looks up. They'll remember it, and they'll get it right.
A bowl packed full of griddled chiles güeros and a plate of cucumber slices dressed with homemade Russian dressing hit the counter; a few minutes later, a plate of cebollitas, long green onions that have been charred on the grill until they turn smoky and juicy. The cebollitas made me long for a Catalan calçotada (a festival centering on pretty much exactly these grilled spring onions).
"Well," I said, "I can probably polish off a taco... maybe." I ordered the speciality of the house, a quesataco mar y tierra. One of the chefs sprinkled mozzarella cheese on the griddle, causing it to melt instantly. When the bottom of this cheese "tortilla" had started to brown (a delectable state of affairs called chicharrón de queso), he tapped slices of fresh scallop and a couple of strips of New York steak into the middle, then wrapped it up like a dairy tamal. This was then laid on a corn tortilla and topped with avocado, crema and salsa. One bite was all it took for the foodgasm face.
It gets better: you can have any topping you want turned into a quesataco. The taco salceado prepared this way is pretty much a tiny version of the D.F. street food known as alambre: carne asada, bacon and mushrooms tucked into the cheese roll and slipped onto a tortilla. Beef, bacon, cheese, mushrooms, spicy salsa, quite possibly the world's most perfect portable food.
We also got a taco dulce, a hash of shrimp and pineapple tucked into the tortilla with more crema and a berry reduction sauce. Very sweet, but with a little hit of spiciness and, of course, the earthiness of the tortilla.
The salsas on the salsa bar deserve their own mention, because they're not at all shy about what goes in the sauce. Jamaica (hibiscus flower tea) gets paired with chile mulato for a smoky, sweet, purple-red juice with a long burn. Another one was made with ground almonds and chile serrano; a third was an unassuming-looking avocado salsa that nearly knocked me on my ass. The owner is a former saucier in a fancy restaurant; it is easy to tell.
So much for moderation; so much for just one taco. We made absolute pigs of ourselves. Tacos were flying everywhere. Adobada (what al pastor is called in Tijuana), marlin, smoked tuna, trout, scallops, steak, nopales (cactus paddles). We ate heroically; we ate shamefully large amounts of food. When we were done, I called for la cuenta, bracing myself for the worst. "¿Cuántas bebidas en total?" called Marcos. "Cinco," I replied, looking at the row of Mexican Coke bottles. Some mental addition and the bill for six of us came out to... 412 pesos. $33 for six of us to eat like that.
Upon leaving, Bill noticed the door of Barbacoa Ermita was open across the street; he knows Victor Torres, a man who makes a living by roasting lambs in a custom-built, tile-lined pit in his covered patio. Barbacoa Ermita was closed, having run out of lamb nearly eight hours earlier (it's normally open weekends from 8 a.m. until they're out), but we were given a tour of the facility while Torres' son looked on at the gringo tourists. Definitely a stop for an overnight weekend trip.
On the way toward the border, we were groaning with the just deserts of our gluttony when someone uttered the words, "tamarind margaritas". A quick turn, a short detour, and we ended up at Cheripan, a glossy, unbelievably beautiful Argentine churrascaría in the Distrito Gastronómico, a place with tall, glassed-in wood doors, white linen napkins and valet parking. At 9 p.m. on Sunday they were nearly empty, but were happy to seat us and get us each a tall, frosty glass of brown granita. Tamarind is the kind of fruit that makes your lips smack from the tannin; it's sour and sweet at once and went absolutely perfectly with Don Julio blanco tequila.
Defeated at last, we hopped into a taxi while Bill headed for his hotel. "La línea, por favor," someone said, and we headed north to the border. The border post was nearly completely empty; the ratio of CBP officers to entering people was nearly 2:1.
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It's a damn shame that so few Americans are going to Tijuana. Other than my initial reaction to the guy trying to save my liquor investment, I didn't feel anything but completely safe while I was there. Sure, the streets are in God-awful shape; sure, the drivers are slightly insane (Mexicans believe in using the entire roadbed for the movement of vehicles); sure, lots of parts of it are gritty and run-down. Tijuana might not be like San Diego, and it might not be like the rest of Mexico, but it is a dining destination in its own right.
Screw the negative reporting; screw the doubters; screw the State Department's oft-misinterpreted warning. Grab your passport and learn what real Mexican cooking is all about. You'll never be able to set foot in Alberto's, On the Border or El Torito again. I know I'll be back; I have a list of restaurants as long as my arm I want to try: Mariscos Ruben, La Querencia, Mercado Hidalgo, Tacos el Francés, Restaurante Uno, and so many others are waiting for me the next time I head to Baja.
Mariscos Becerra, Del Pacífico, 743, Secc. Monumental, Playas de Tijuana; 011-52-664-290-23-13.
Cocos El Palmero, Parque Azteca Norte, 640, Secc. Monumental, Playas de Tijuana; no telephone.
Erizo Cebichería, Sonora, 3808-11, Fracc. Chapultepec, Tijuana; 011-52-664-686-28-95.
Licores Leyva, Revolución, 1026, Zona Centro, Tijuana; 011-52-664-688-09-80.
Villa del Tabaco, Revolución, 868, Zona Centro, Tijuana; 011-52-664-688-29-30.
Tacos Salceados, Ermita Norte, 30A, Fracc. Santa Cruz La Mesa, Tijuana; no telephone.
Barbacoa La Ermita, Ermita Norte, 807, Fracc. Santa Cruz La Mesa, Tijuana; 011-52-664-622-1969.
Cheripan, Escuádron 201, 3151, Col. Aviación, Tijuana; 011-52-664-622-97-30.
Note: I and the other attendees were hosted at the Festival del Pescado y el Marisco; all other expenses on this trip were paid out of my own pocket. Special thanks to Bill Esparza, Jahdiel Vargas, Emma Cruz, and all the people at CANIRAC and Cotuco for your great hospitality.